Taking aim at job creation as Ft. Monmouth closes

Agency seeking ‘magnet' tenant to draw employers to base site

NJBIZ STAFF//May 16, 2011//

Taking aim at job creation as Ft. Monmouth closes

Agency seeking ‘magnet' tenant to draw employers to base site

NJBIZ STAFF//May 16, 2011//

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As Fort Monmouth’s closure approaches, the authority charged with redeveloping the U.S. Army base is aiming to bring new employers — and jobs — back to the site as early as this year.

“The focus is on jobs,” said Bruce Steadman, executive director of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere where investors will invest and employers will employ.”

The closing of the 1,126-acre Fort Monmouth — which covers portions of Eatontown, Oceanport and Tinton Falls — will mean the loss of 5,500 high-tech jobs, an additional 12,000 jobs that supported technical operations at the base and an estimated 20,000 support jobs located off base, said Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo.

For years, “Fort Monmouth served as a magnet” for military contractors and telecommunications companies, like AT&T, Tarantolo said. “What we’re looking for is another magnet that may want to come to this area, occupy space at the fort, attract other industries and hopefully start a domino effect.”
One potential magnet of employment would be the federal government, Tarantolo said. As homeland security continues to be a major national issue, “there may be a need for a Homeland Security training facility in the Northeast,” he said. “Something like that would be ideal for the location at Fort Monmouth.” Such a facility would also create the need for more hotels and restaurants to service trainees, spurring additional activity in the local economy, he said.

But for now, much of the transfer of operations from Fort Monmouth to Aberdeen, Md., already has taken place, Tarantolo said.
“We have a major challenge ahead of us to fill the void of the closing of Fort Monmouth,” he said. And “it can’t happen fast enough. We already see the adverse effect of Fort Monmouth moving south.”

At the Eatontown Industrial Park, for example, numerous contractors that once serviced Fort Monmouth have left for Aberdeen. “We have vacancy signs all over the place,” he said; the base closure, along with the recession, has caused the town’s ratable base to drop by $500 million, from $2.6 billion in 2006.

In Oceanport, about 320 out of 2,100 households have a family member who was employed at the base, either directly or as a contractor, said Mayor Michael Mahon. “That’s resulted in a slight uptick in the number of homes for sale,” he said, as those affected by the closure have relocated or retired.
The base will not close until September, but the authority already is marketing the property to prospective tenants to aid in the process of selling, leasing or redeveloping the property, and creating jobs, Steadman said.

FMERA has talked to some 100 different employers and investors, and given them tours of the property; about 20 to 25 of those “are pretty serious players,” Steadman said. “The interest level is very high.” About half the firms are out-of-staters. Additionally, according to Tarantolo, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has expressed interest in leasing space for an administrative facility in the area around the fort.
Between now and the base closure in September, FMERA will be working with the U.S. Army to develop a transition plan, where on Sept. 15, the Army will vacate the property and the authority will begin caretaking of the property, Steadman said. The agency will take the title to portions of the base as the Army completes its environmental due diligence on those parts, he said. “It’ll be a multiyear process until we have actually gained title to everything.”

Portions of the base could be ready for new occupants as early as late fall this year, Steadman said. “I’m going to be very surprised if at least a couple of leases aren’t in place by the end of the year, as well as a purchase or two (of fort property by the authority) by this time next year.”
In terms of redeveloping the base, “the easiest transition is reuse,” where facilities would be used for similar purposes as they had under the Army, Mahon said. “There will be less capital required up front for private industry to move in and take advantage of those facilities.”

The base closure has been an attraction for private-sector companies that “are expanding their research and development and want to come into the area” to tap into the pool of high-skilled labor that will remain in the area, he said.
But “there’s a narrow window of opportunity” where Fort Monmouth will be able to attract such companies, said Daniel Levine, principal at MetroCompare LLC, a location and incentives advisory firm in Scotch Plains. Once the base closes, “the skill sets of workers left behind will become stale … and there’s nothing unique about that site, in terms of what was once there.”

Tarantolo said he also saw promise in certain redevelopment opportunities at the base. Some developers are interested in pursuing a plan proposed by FMERA’s predecessor, the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority, to replace military housing with a 260-unit senior living community. And the authority is hoping to attract a major hotel chain to build a hotel and conference center that would incorporate the base’s existing golf course as an amenity, he said.
“I see those, probably, as the first two early projects,” Tarantolo said. “What we need right now is some definite transition and disposition of property to show that this is really happening.”

But “how quickly (redevelopment) starts, and how we measure success in the first five years, is going to be an open question,” Mahon said. While stakeholders are optimistic about future business development, “our approach right now is conservative,” he said. “It all depends on the regional and national economy, how quickly it comes back.”

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